World Cup robot contest set to kick off

Germany, it appears, can’t get enough soccer these days. With one World Cup tournament already under way, another is scheduled to begin Wednesday — with robots instead of human beings kicking away to score goals.

The Robot World Cup, or RoboCup, will open its gates from June 9 to July 9 in Bremen, Germany.

The decade-old event, drawing 440 teams from 40 countries, offers robotics researchers an opportunity to test their computing systems and skills in competition with international colleagues. Its the brainchild of Japanese scientist Hiroaki Kitano who, in the early 1990s, sought a platform for researchers to challenge each other in the area of artificial intelligence.

Initially, Kitano and his international colleagues considered a competition focused on simulated tasks in nursing or disaster work but because of widely varying requirements for these tasks around the world, the group eventually agreed on soccer with its straightforward rules but fast, unpredictable game play.

The event has given a boost to an area of combined robotics and artificial intelligence research that differs greatly from robotics research aimed at controlled environments such as manufacturing and logistics. Factories and warehouses tend to be adapted around robots designed to carry out repetitive motions, and not the other way around.

Soccer, by comparison, is a real-world situation where players have to work in teams and react to the ball and opposing players. The sport provides a useful way to test models of behavior and motion that change quickly.

The robotic players, which can be on wheels or legs or simulated, must know as exactly as possible where they are at any time, follow the movements of other players and the ball and react to these changing circumstances appropriately, according to Ubbo Visser, a director with the Center for Information Technology in Bremen, which is organizing the RoboCup together with the Bremen Fair Center.

The competition is organized into five leagues: the simulation league, the small-size league, the middle-size league, the Sony legged league and the humanoid league.

The automation of everyday intelligence still presents one of the biggest challenges to researchers, according to Visser. The RoboCup’s goal — and not the one with a net — is to develop a team of fully autonomous humanoid robots that can play — and win — against a human World Cup champion team by 2050.

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